Jeffrey Robbins — SSIT Loses a Stalwart

By on May 7th, 2022 in Announcements, Articles, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Jeffrey (Jeff) Robbins, for decades a dedicated SSIT member, author, and ISTAS presenter, died April 18, 2022.

He was born in New York City March 29th, 1941, and grew up in Long Beach, NY.

An incisive multidisciplinary writer and thinker, Robbins taught in the English Department at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, since 2002. His SSIT volunteer bio page notes that he taught “upper level research writing courses on a wide spectrum of topics including “Technology,” “Order, Chaos, and the Universe,” “The Corporation,” and “Biosphere Politics.”  (Additional course themes were “Popular Culture,” “Violence, Social Conflict and War,” “Globalization” and “The Family.”) He received the B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 1962, and a Master’s degree/A.B.D. from the University of New Mexico in 1967, where he was a Graduate Student Research Associate on the Rover nuclear rocket, Los Alamos National Laboratories, and where he participated in a Monte Carlo simulation computer program on an upper atmosphere solar neutron balloon experiment.

“He added so much to SSIT over many years, with much humor and good will.”

Robbins was proud to be among the earliest and longest represented attendees at the International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS). He first attended SSIT associated gatherings in the 1980s when SSIT’s conferences were affiliated with the Carnahan Conferences in Kentucky and Los Angeles.

Robbins was committed to shining a sharp spotlight on the social impacts of technology. His SSIT bio states, “His research interests stem from an ongoing concern for the, too often swept aside, bite backs of rising technical order.” He was a prolific contributor to IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. His most recent articles included: “When Smart Is Not: Technology and Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind” (2016), “If Technology is a Parasite Masquerading as a Symbiont – Are we the Host?” (cover article, IEEE TSM September 2019), and “The Intelligence Factor: Technology and the Missing Link” (March 2022). (A longer list of Robbins’ publications can be accessed here.) His papers and articles have also been published in The Journal of Cases on Information Technology, and The New Atlantis. His essay, “Humanities’ tears” appears as a chapter in Exact Methods in the Study of Language and Text. His article, “An Eastern Exposure on the West,” won the $10,000 First Prize in a national essay competition presented at the U.S. National Press Club. He recently completed a book manuscript with the working title Shortcut: Technology and the Trap of Losing It For Not Using It. His first book, On Balance and Higher Education: A Gesture to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, was published by Philosophical Library.

“He added so much to SSIT over many years, with much humor and good will,” noted SSIT President Clint Andrews.

Katina Michael, who worked with Robbins for many years as an author when she was Editor-in-Chief of Technology and Society Magazine, added, “Jeff, supported so many ISTAS’s with his papers and with his presence. He was always there for us in one way or another. A deep deep thinker! And a brilliant academic.”

Another past EIC of TSM, Keith Miller, said, “Jeff was a good writer, a good friend of SSIT, and a good man. RIP, Jeff.”

“He was a good friend to all, a magnificent father, a passionate teacher and a curious human who always questioned the path of least resistance,” wrote his daughter, Nina Robbins, in an email announcing his passing. “He was a fierce critic of technology and warned the world about global warming before it was hot (no pun intended). If you would like to make a donation in his name, please consider the following organizations:

Text of the Eulogy given by Nina Robbins for her father at his funeral on April 21, 2022, follows:

Eulogy from the funeral for Jeff Robbins by Nina Robbins

There are a lot of people more powerful than my father, wealthier than my father, people society had deemed more successful. But very few people live, work and love the way they want to, and he did.

The qualities that my father embodied are the ones we are in short supply of in this world – kindness, curiosity, focus and a genuine belief that everyone has the best intentions. They are the qualities we should put on a pedestal and espouse.

He was a brilliant writer and scholar, a popular teacher, a devoted son and the best daddy a girl could ask for.

He comforted me when I was an infant, came to my first grade class to teach us about the planets and let me be the sun in our little human solar system.

He imparted a love of the visual arts that began with Friday night trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He would sketch the mummy coffins and I would color them in.

As I got older, more distant and obsessed with what I was wearing, he would take me to the mall and would sit patiently reading with the other Dads in the corner of Abercrombie and Fitch while I tried on clothes for hours and hours. I have no idea how he was able to concentrate with horrible house music vibrating throughout the entire store.

He was always there to lend an ear when I  was down and out and always there to celebrate me when I was up.

He would be proud to tell anyone and everyone he met, even strangers on the subway, that his daughter biked across America and he would carry around printed maps of my route in his backpack to show anyone who he encountered.

He would insist on picking me up from the airport every trip and when work took over my life he would come all the way to Manhattan to meet me at the lobby of whatever office building I was in for dinner and a conversation. It’s been a few years now since I’ve worked in an office but the image of him waiting for me downstairs, grading papers and waddling around with his huge briefcase and backpack makes me miss him so much already.

We had been preparing for this day for a long time, and in a way, I forgot that it would actually come, a part of me just wanted to believe we would be in eternal preparation, but it has arrived and my father has moved on to the next world. His final adventure to a place where he is no longer in pain. He fought to live and spend time with his granddaughter and even when the pain became relentless and unbearable he could still crack a joke and a smile. He was never bitter.

Beyond being my dad, he was a beloved teacher at Rutgers, a brilliant engineer who worked for NASA and Ford, and he was a prolific writer who wrote three books, published one and had many admirers in academia. His writing and his big and complicated theories about entropy, chaos and technology are what he would want to be remembered for more than anything else. I’ve printed copies of one of his many articles and left them in the back. I ask that each of you take a copy and read it tonight. It may take a few rounds to fully digest but he’ll be so happy wherever he is to know you read his ideas.

My father liked to tell stories, about traveling, his alien encounter in Morocco, his near death experience in Florida, his girlfriend that he thought was a witch, and many more pastimes and adventures from his life. I used to roll my eyes when he would start one of the stories I’ve heard a thousand times, but now, I would give a lot to hear one of his tales again.

On his last evening, my father and I sat together at Calvary hospital and I read to him from one of his favorite bedtime books – the hundred year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared- and then we watched 60 minutes, his favorite show. I kissed his forehead and said goodnight, I love you so much and one day maybe I’ll see you on the other side. I will miss him terribly, I already do, but his spirit breathes in me and Robyn and in all of you.

Robyn brought him great joy in his last six months of life. She was born on October 8th and he would call every month on the 8th to wish her a happy birthday. He was a wonderful grandpa and father-in-law and he will not be forgotten.

Thank you for coming today. I received some beautiful notes from friends around the world and printed them out for everyone to read, something my dad would have done.